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Japan on edge as it awaits word on ISIS hostage
01:58 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

NEW: Kenji Goto's mother says she doesn't want her tears to spawn a "chain of hatred"

Journalist crossed into ISIS-controlled Syria to cover what's happening there

ISIS captured him, and a purported video from the group threatened his life

CNN  — 

Kenji Goto had every reason to stay home in Japan. A successful career. An adoring mother. A loving wife. A pair of young daughters, one of them just 3-weeks old.

Yet, in his mind, he had to go into war-torn Syria.

The experienced journalist explained why in a video shot in October from southern Turkey. He felt compelled to tell the stories of war in all its trauma, complexity and humanity.

“Syrian people (have been) suffering for three years and a half. It’s enough,” the 47-year-old Goto explained. “So I would like to get the story of what ISIS wants to do.”

So Goto crossed the border into Syria and headed toward the Islamist extremist group’s de facto capital of Raqaa, despite the advice of friend, Alaaeddin Al Zaim, who’d been with him previously in that nation.

Al Zaim recalled telling Goto, “It’s not safe for you.” The journalist replied that he didn’t feel he was in danger. After all, his native Japan – unlike the Iraqi government and the international coalition supporting it – wasn’t involved in the military fight against the terrorist group that’s branded itself as the Islamic State.

“I am not American. I am not British. I am Japanese,” Goto said, according to Al Zaim, “I can go.”

It appears to have been a mistake.

A new ISIS video released Saturday appeared to show the decapitated body of Goto. While the authenticity of the video could not immediately be established by CNN, Japanese officials did not challenge news of his apparent death.

“We are deeply saddened by this despicable and horrendous act of terrorism and we denounce it in the strongest terms,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in Tokyo.

Caught after going into ISIS-controlled Syria

Goto covered big news stories for years, hoping that by telling them he could make a difference in the world. His work was featured by numerous Japanese organizations, including broadcaster NHK.

And he wasn’t afraid to put himself in harm’s way to tell a story. One need just look to his previous trip to Syria, where a bloody, complicated civil war has gone on for four years. The United Nations estimated in August that nearly 200,000 had been killed, more than 3 million Syrians had become refugees and at least 6.5 million were displaced inside the country.

While there, Goto came to know another Japanese man, a 42-year-old aspiring security contractor Haruna Yukawa.

According to Yukawa’s friend Nobuo Kimoto, Goto passed along insights on how to survive in Syria and introduced him to rebel fighters, who are distinct from ISIS though both are fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

The fact the two Japanese men’s paths had crossed again became public January 20 in an ISIS video posted to social media. It shows Goto and Yukawa dressed in orange, kneeling in front of a masked, black-clad man.

In it, the ISIS militant gives the Japanese government a choice to pay $200 million – the same amount of money Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently pledged for those “contending” with ISIS – to free the Japanese men within 72 hours.

Days later, a new message was posted by known ISIS supporters featuring the voice of someone claiming to be Goto. Yukawa apparently was dead. And so soon would Goto, the new message claimed – unless Jordan’s government freed its longtime prisoner, Sajida al-Rishawi, a convicted terrorist.

On Saturday, the latest ISIS video showed the masked man blaming Japan’s humanitarian support of coalition efforts in Iraq and Syria for Goto’s apparent beheading.

Japan’s government insisted it did everything within reason that it could to bring Goto home safely.

The fate of Moath al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot recently captured by ISIS while on a military mission targeting the Islamist extremist group, is unclear. He was not shown or mentioned in the video.

Mother: Goto wanted to help children in war zones

Speaking out for the first time Thursday, Goto’s wife, Rinko, said her husband “was taken from me October 25” although she didn’t know it until a December 2 message from his captors landed in her inbox.

Now, after working “tirelessly behind the scenes,” she went public to “beg the Jordanian and Japanese governments to understand that the fates of both (Goto and al-Kaseasbeh) are in their hands.” Her statement comes after she got another email Wednesday with the hostage takers’ “final demand.”

“Our baby girl was only 3 weeks old when Kenji left. I hope our oldest daughter, who is just 2, will get to see her father again,” Rinko said on Thursday. “I want them both to grow up knowing their father.”

As to why Goto left in the first place, his wife said, “My husband is a good and honest man who went to Syria to show the plight of those who suffer. I believe that Kenji may have also been trying to find out about Haruna Yukawa’s situation. … I know all too well what (Yukawa’s relatives) are going through.”

The Japanese captive’s mother, Junko Ishido, had spoken out previously trying to save a man she insists “is not the enemy of ISIS.”

While Goto’s decision to go to Syria surprised his mother, his rationale did not. Ishido said, “Kenji always has been a kind person, ever since he was little. He was always saying, ‘I want to save the lives of children in war zones.’”

And now Goto has become a victim in a war, a fact that’s tearing Ishido apart.

“I’m shedding tears of sorrow, I just can’t think of any words to say but I don’t want this sorrow to create a chain of hatred,” she said Saturday. “Kenji worked for children who suffered from conflicts and poverty, and his goal was to create a society without war. I want to pass on his thoughts to people around the world.”

Who is Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh, captured by ISIS?